“Friends in Low Places”*
by the Reverend Bennett Wayne Dean Sr.
Luke 10: 1-15; Mark 2: 13-17; (See also Matt. 11:19; Luke 5:27-28; 10:1-2); John 4: 1-18; 28; 39-41
This is another in the series of sermons based on popular music. It has been a somewhat controversial series, I’ll admit to you, but a series nonetheless. Like Paul used the “unknown god” to point the people to the “one true God”, we are often called to use the secular to point to the sacred. Most people we encounter outside the stained glass – out in the world – do not listen to Christian radio or CDs – but secular – yes, even country, rock or rap.
The message this morning is inspired by Luke’s gospel and Garth Brook’s famous song from the early 90s, “Friends In Low Places.” I’m sure some of you – maybe most – are familiar with this song – however just in case a few of you have never heard it or to refresh the memory of the rest of us, let me play a few verses.
Now friends, just what kind of folks is Garth singing about? He’s singing about friends who frequent places “where the whiskey drowns and the beer chases his blues away“. He’s singing about not being “big on the social graces” so he was going to “slip on down to the Oasis” one of the “low places” where his friends were.
Doris asked me when I first told her what the subject of this message was going to be if it was going to be about all of my old friends – and a friend of mine in Mobile, who works with me writing skits for a Carnival organization, when I told him the subject of the sermon asked me to, please, if I used him as an example not to mention his name. So I told Louie I wouldn’t!
But, no, this sermon message is not about all of my old friends – or even about my current friends – it’s really about Jesus’ friends. For you see,
Jesus had “friends in low places” and He loved them dearly – so dearly that He went to the cross at Cavalry for them.
Why were tax collectors, as we just read in the scriptures, thought of people in “low places”? You see, because the Romans assessed taxes by districts, they would sell the right to collect the taxes to private contractors, who then charged enough to make a profit. But because many charged extremely high tariffs and their methods were so oppressive, they came to be despised by the people and were classified with other gross “sinners” such as prostitutes and other social outcasts of ill-reputation. 1 So you see, when Jesus set down to eat with the worst of the worst of people in “low places”, He broke all social convention. By doing so He showed His ability and desire to forgive even the worst of sinners, the lowest of the low. Friends, only those who recognize their need of forgiveness can be forgiven. Jesus knew this. Jesus said “they are the one with the need for forgiveness” and to be able to teach them that they had this need, Jesus had to associate with them.
That Jesus was “eating and drinking with tax collectors (some translations say publicans) and sinners” (Mark 2:16) was one of the dreadful charges brought against Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees – dreadful in their view – thinking they had pressed on Him a crown full of thorns – but it was to become instead a crown of honor.
Now, of course, there is a way in which we may meet, mix and mingle with people in “low places” and with immoral lives that would truly merit rebuke. When one associates with such people so as to descend to their own level and be one with them in spirit and companionship, he puts himself into their class and under their condemnation.
But this was not the nature of the fellowship Jesus had with these people. The Pharisees and scribes knew this. Jesus associated with His “friends in low places” only as a good man or woman such as those in the church may mingle with their “friends in low places”, even the worst – in the slums of the large cities – on the broad ground of human kinship in order to build a relationship to gain their confidence and lead them up into a better life.
Jesus mingled freely with all classes and conditions of people. If we go to the root words of the Hebrew and Greek He most likely even, from time to time, had a glass of fermented wine with them – and yet He was no more contaminated by these people than is the sunlight that mingles with a murky fog or the slime of a swamp. For we know that Jesus was without sin.
Now the host of the party we just heard about in the scriptures, Levi, who was later became known as Matthew, was called to become one of the 12 disciples. That, in itself, indicates that Levi had indeed recognized his need for repentance and was truly forgiven by Jesus. There is even some indication that the occasion for this party was Levi’s being called as a disciple – it being such an occasion of joy, a festival commemorating one of the happiest turning-points in his life. Thus the guest list consisted of those people who would be more receptive to the Good News Jesus had brought.
In the opinion of the Pharisees and Scribes Jesus could not have done a worst thing than to call one of these despised men – tax collectors -as His disciple. From a biblical world point of view it did seen to be a fatal blunder. Man, Jesus has done it now, He has called a tax collector to be one of His main men! He must be out of His mind!
But, as the jewel polisher can look at a rough, dull stone and see the glint of a diamond in that rough – a rough stone the untrained eye would think but a common stone and cast away – so Jesus with His divine insight could discern a diamond in the rough in every human soul – a possible saint in every sinner.
Often children do this same thing much better than we do as adults. When our children were growing up – especially our oldest daughter Lillian – we had a children’s book which began “With a whistle and a shout the garbage men are all about.” It was one of her favorites. Well, along that same line, Peter Marshall has written a little poem which illustrates how children see the “diamond in the rough” as Jesus did. It goes like this:
“We have the nicest garbage man,
He empties out our garbage can.
He’s just as nice as he can be,
He always stops and talks to me.
My mother doesn’t like his smell,
But mother doesn’t know him well.”2
We can see this attitude in Jesus. You all recall the incident with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. I’m not going to take time to read it again this morning. But I’m sure you all remember that story from the 4th chapter of John? Verse 4, in the NKJV, in talking about Jesus’ route after leaving Judea on His way to Galilee, reads: “But He needed to go through Samaria”.
Now in those days, there was a great distaste for Samaritans by the Jews. Kind of like this little child’s mother – Jews perhaps didn’t like their smell. In fact because of this enmity between themselves and the Samaritans, many Jews flatly refused to travel through Samaria on their way to Galilee – instead taking a l – o – n – g detour through Perea west of the Jordan River. Jesus, however, did not shun the main road – the straight shot – through the hostile area. Remember, He has ”friends in low places.”
And what about the woman’s reaction?: “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” She was astonished at Jesus’ request for water from her – not only because she was a woman, but because she was a Samaritan woman! The Jews did not associate with Samaritans! They didn’t like their smell but then, they did not know them very well.
But this question was all Jesus needed to introduce her to the gift of God – redemption – and the “living water” – eternal life. And then we can read what happened – she went into the city, told her friends about Jesus and brought many more to the Lord.
Jesus knew what He was doing. Yes He has “friends in low places”. He offered them what really “chases their blues away!” And that was the true Oasis – the Oasis of His Love and the Oasis of the Offer of Eternal Salvation!
And we all know about the criminals on the crosses of Calvary don’t we? There was no more disgraceful way to die than on the Roman cross. Jesus hung there between two criminals and one said, we“… receive the due reward of our deeds.” And then, saying to Jesus, “Lord remember me when You come into Your Kingdom.” Jesus answered by saying, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” That criminal, at that very moment, received the gift of God and the “living water”. He had repented of his sins and was saved by the blood of Christ which had been shed. The other was not.
For Jesus that one precious man hanging in the “lowest of places” was the reason He was there. Yes, our Lord had “friends in low places” – that’s where it was happening in His day. That’s where His mission was. As He said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”
Too often we shy away from certain people because we can’t see any redeeming qualities in them. I’m reminded of the story – I believe it was on one of those televisions shows – Rescue 911 – or something similar about the emergency call an officer with the Southern California Humane Society received in February of 1995. The officer, Tori Matthew’s, responding to the call found that a young boy’s pet iguana had been scared up a tree by a neighbor’s dog. My son has a pet iguana so I was interested in the story. Anyway the iguana, after climbing up the tree, slipped and fell into a swimming pool, where it sank like a brick. When officer Matthew’s arrived, not being able to reach the animal with her net, she dived into the pool and emerged seconds later with the pet’s limp body.
The Arizona Republic newspaper reported that, at the time, Officer Matthew’s thought, “Well, if you do CPR on a person and a dog, why not an iguana?” So she put her lips to the iguana’s. The reptile responded to her efforts and made a full recovery.
Looking back on the incident, the officer said, “It was a pretty ugly animal to be kissing, but the last thing I wanted to do was tell this little boy that his iguana had died.”
You see, Officer Tori Matthew’s didn’t see a water-logged reptile – she saw a little boy’s beloved pet. Likewise we may never see the beauty in some people, but when we realize that they are God’s beloved children, we should do all we have to do to keep them from drowning.
Jesus saw the beauty of all God’s children. He mingled with tax collectors, met with prostitutes, other sinners and even the despised Samaritans because of their possibilities and eating and drinking with them was one of His means of approaching them and winning them to His fellowship.
The early Methodist Circuit Riders did the same thing. They would go into the taverns and saloons to offer the word of salvation to the lost – and even sang hymns using the “whiskey drinking” music of the day – for, you see, the piano players in these “low places” did not know any other tunes – so these early preachers “put God’s words to the devil’s music” and saved sinners.
And do we not employ – or should employ – similar methods today. We invite our unsaved friends to dinner on the grounds, to the 4th of July cook-out and fireworks or to “go to lunch in Monroeville” and hope to be able to share the fellowship and the saving message of Jesus Christ.
Yes, Jesus had “friends in low places” and so should we. For you see, with Jesus a “low place” is anywhere there is a precious person who needs salvation. We all should go down to “low places” do no less- or go up to “high places” – which may be the harder task – we should go to all levels and be all things to all men and women that we may win their confidence and do them good. For, in Jesus’ eyes, as it is written in the Holy Scriptures, there is …”no more Jew nor Gentile” – ALL are equal in His sight and He desires that “no one should be lost” and will go to the lowest or the highest places to bring the good news. You see, Jesus will help anyone, if that person will but receive His grace. And Jesus commands that we, as His disciples of the 21st century, to do no less!
Let us pray.
O God, Defender of the downtrodden
You brought Light to the darkness.
Give us boldness to go into the darkness – the low places – of this world
To illumine it with the message of Your Love.
Through Jesus Christ. AMEN.
An Alternate Prayer might be:
God, Friend of the rejected. We rejoice that You found us in our “low places”. And like Jesus who had “friends in low places” and went into these low places to offer His love and His grace, many of us, too, have “friends in low places” – as well as in “high places.” We ask for the boldness so, as we encounter these friends, we will, without apology, share with them the good news of Christ Jesus. For it is in the name of Jesus that we pray. AMEN.